Power Play: Agrippina from The Grange Festival

Händel – Agrippina

Claudio – Ashley Riches
Agrippina – Anna Bonitatibus
Nerone – Raffaele Pè
Poppea – Stefanie True
Ottone – Christopher Ainslie
Pallante – Alex Otterburn
Narciso – James Hall
Lesbo – Jonathan Best

Academy of Ancient Music / Robert Howarth.
Stage director – Walter Sutcliffe.  Video director – Matthew Parkin.

The Grange Festival, Hampshire, England.  Friday, July 6th, 2018.  Streamed via The Grange Festival’s website.

For those unfamiliar with The Grange Festival, it’s one of the country house opera festivals that seem to proliferate in England during the summer.  Located in the county of Hampshire, a couple of hours travelling distance from London, every summer the festival hosts a trio of productions combining both established artists and up-and-coming talent.  The peculiar English tradition of formal dress and long dinner intermissions are also a feature of this festival, held in the grounds of what looks like a grand palazzo in the Hampshire countryside.  This Agrippina is the first of a series of their productions to be made available online for streaming and is a most welcome one.

It was something of a scoop for the festival to engage the great Anna Bonitatibus for its first production of Händel’s musing on power, in Walter Sutcliffe’s staging.  Another sign of the festival’s impressive artistic credentials, was the presence of the estimable Academy of Ancient Music in the pit.  Sutcliffe opens the evening giving us what appears to be a mirror image of the festival’s intimate theatre, where the action starts to take place.  During the course of the evening, the set (Jon Bausor) gradually disintegrates, with the seats disappearing and the rake of the theatre’s orchestra section revolving to reveal the depths below where characters hide.  The addition of some faux-Grecian columns in the later acts, as well as a model of the Grange palazzo itself, also end up being damaged as if to reflect a world falling apart on itself.

Photo: © Robert Workman

Sutcliffe gives us some clever touches, transforming the action into an upper-class English family domestic farce.  Agrippina makes use of an iPad to plan her machinations, while she and Poppea get trashed on some white wine.  As Claudio returns, announcing ‘Nella Britannia vinta’, he arrives with what appears to be a trophy from the Brit Awards, an annual record industry ceremony that takes place in the UK.  Personenregie, for the most part, succeeds in articulating the comedy most amusingly – with lots of engagingly sexualized actions.  Where the direction succeeds less well, is in some of the haunting laments, where characters are parked on stage to emote – although in this case the revolving stage produces some additional visual interest.  The audience seems to love it, audibly reacting with glee and frequent applause.

Photo: © Robert Workman

Musically, there is much to offer.  Bonitatibus gives us a fabulous Agrippina.  It goes without saying that her native diction, and ability to bring out the meaning of the text fully, give an enormous amount of pleasure, digging deep to find and communicate meaning.  Her dispatching of the rapid-fire coloratura is most impressive, no aspirates here, just line after line of immaculately neat runs.  She also found passion for her great lament, pouring out streams of orange-toned juiciness, bringing out the pain and the pathos.  Yet she also found a vivaciousness in her conspiring and a genuine chemistry with her castmates that was utterly winning.

The Grange also engaged an impressive new talent in Stefanie True, as Poppea.  The Canadian soprano studied both in Toronto and The Hague and is clearly a name to watch.  Her soprano is delightfully crystalline in its unblemished beauty of tone and ideally matched to the Händelian lines.  She is also a highly engaging actress.  Christopher Ainslie brought his oaky countertenor to the role of Ottone.  He sang with an admirable legato and style.  Yet, I must admit his interpretation left me rather cold.  His big lament seemed rather too contained, lacking in desperate passion, with a sense that this was just a roadblock like any other.

Photo: © Robert Workman

The remainder of the cast was decent.  Ashley Riches sang Claudio in a firm baritone with a solid middle, although the tone did tend to discolour further up.  Raffaele Pè was an interesting Nerone, his countertenor has a brassy, penetrating edge that sounded rather unforgiving over the speakers – though in the theatre it may well have another effect.  He did, however, savour the text bringing out a deliciously bawdy sense of humour.  Jonathan Best was a suitably gruff Lesbo sung in a weather-beaten bass, while Alex Otterburn and James Hall offered active stage presences and mellifluously sung Pallante and Narciso, respectively.  Diction throughout was very clear with a few rather Anglophone vowels in some of the supporting cast.

Robert Howarth’s conducting was stately.  Tempi were middle of the road sensible and the recitatives were helped along with the sheer energy brought by the principals – Bonatatibus, True and Pè in particular.  I longed for Howarth to get the strings to dig deep, to discover the emotional impact of a sforzando, especially in Ottone’s big number which wasn’t helped by Howarth’s passiveness in the pit.  The quality of the AAM’s playing was certainly not in doubt, however.  The tuning of the strings was impeccable throughout a lengthy evening, and Leo Duarte’s oboe brought out a welcome plangency.  The da capo ornamentation was welcome and impeccably stylish throughout.

Photo: © Robert Workman

This was an evening that clearly gave all those present a great deal of pleasure, given the frequently audible audience response.  The camerawork brought the evening to life in a clear and logical way to us at home and the opportunity to be able to see this show without trundling to the Hampshire countryside is a most welcome one.  That it also preserves for posterity Bonitatibus’s magnificent account of the title role and highlights an exciting new soprano talent, is undoubtedly a reason to be grateful.  It certainly reflects well on the theatrical and musical standards maintained by the festival.

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